Fifty-five years separate them. Yet, artists Agnes Varda (age 88) and JR (age 33) teamed recently to create art throughout France. The French documentary “Faces Places” (“Visages Villages”), a work of art in itself, chronicles their collaboration on photographic murals.
The film introduces its leads by telling the audience amusing ways in which the artists did not meet- not at the bus stop, not in the patisserie (too bad because the pastries look delicious!), not in a nightclub. Instead, JR reached out to Varda. He is a fan of her films, especially “Cleo from 5 to 7.” Those movies were the forerunners to the New Wave cinema movement which shifted the focus of French film away from the artificiality of studio productions toward more personal and realistic works.
A love of images unites Varda and JR. She originally began her career as a photographer before creating movies. For “Faces Places,” she and JR team up to capture and explore meaningful depictions of everyday life.
“Faces Places” follows along for the ride as JR and Varda traverse France, stopping in villages to create art installations. For them, the goal is more than just capturing interesting images. They want to know about the lives of their subjects- the farmer who loves computerized tractors; the wives of dock workers at the port of Le Havre; the shy waitress whose portrait will become part of thousands of selfies; the postman who describes himself as having an ugly mug; the homeless artists who uses bottle caps in his artwork.
One of their most memorable installations takes place during a visit to a coal mining town. There, JR and Agnes find a row of brick homes slated for demolition. These homes belonged to the miners. There is one holdout who doesn’t want to move- Jeannine, whose father worked the mines. The artists’ interest in her story, and that of the miners who lived and toiled there, draws a crowd. With pride, the villagers relate stories of their hard-working ancestors. Varda and JR install historic photos of miners, making the homes tributes to their former inhabitants and to Jeannine’s dedication.
The images JR and Varda use are huge- many are at least the height of a two story building. In the back of a Mercedes van, JR has a photo booth which can print extra large black and white images. These prints are then pasted as murals by JR and his crew. The photos come from the camera in the booth or are downloaded from handhelds both artists use to take still images.
Eyes frequently appear in JR’s work. At one of his most recent installations, the image of a Dreamer’s eyes spanned tables used for an international picnic at the U.S./ Mexico border.
Eyes also figure in the narrative of “Faces Places.” Varda struggles with eye disease, so JR helps her position her camera when her eyesight is weak. One of her eye procedures is shown, along with the famous (and cringe-worthy) clip from Dali and Bunuel’s film “Un Chien Andalou” of an eye being cut. In addition, a running theme in “Faces Places” is Varda trying to convince JR to remove his trademark dark shades so she can see his eyes.
Near the end of “Faces Places,” there is the hope for a reunion between Varda and her New Wave film colleague, director Jean-Luc Godard. The bittersweet results recall the French phrase, “C’est la vie” (That’s life). Yet, in the case of the inspiring yet ephemeral photographic murals created by Varda and JR, the saying definitely is, “Vive l’art!” (Long live art!)